Boys are not thriving in our time. How can we help them live better lives?
Anthony Trollope and the “Trouthe” about Manhood
In the fifth novel of The Chronicles of Barsetshire, Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) entitles his final chapter, “John Eames Becomes a Man.”
“Becoming a man” might be the theme for the entire book (The Small House at Allington, 1864). Indeed it arises with nearly every interesting young man in all six of the novels that make up The Chronicles. To gain a wife and, if possible, a spot of the green and pleasant lands of Barsetshire, most of Trollope’s men must overcome some kind of moral weakness. They are not generally afflicted by pride or laziness, greed or sensuality. They are irresolute and inclined to take the easy way out of any hard situation.
These shortcomings have a particular resonance for those of us who teach at universities today. Our young men are regularly outstripped academically and vocationally by their female classmates; they often feel the need to behave in hyper-masculine ways with their male friends, since “homosocial” friendship is often suspected of masking same-sex attraction; and influential texts on masculinity teach that male bonding in sports, fraternities, and the military is fundamentally homophobic. Among the men in one of my classes last year, the median time spent in online gaming was 20 hours per week. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine found such wide use of online pornography among adolescents—much more pervasive among boys than girls—that it merely asked whether teens can learn to view it “more critically.”
The outward restraints on the liberties of adolescent boys may be few, but how are we teaching them to become men? Who among you, male or female, would wish to be coming of age today?
Trollope explores the challenges faced by young women as well as men. Women who seek out marriage solely for material or social gain repel him, as critics have noted. Still, they enjoy considerably less liberty than men, and Trollope particularly sympathizes with the working class women of his time, whose very well-being depends on a good marriage. In The Small House at Allington, Johnny Eames is guilty of a serious lapse in giving his word to marry such a woman, then recanting that promise. Outside the Barchester series, in The Claverings (1866), Trollope’s female protagonist makes clear that she is free only because her rich husband is dead.
But these women are not weak. Indeed, their fortitude greatly exceeds that of the men.
Young Men Going Off Track
By contrast, in The Warden (1855), John Bold is seduced by journalistic fame, which he achieves by exposing Mr. Harding, his future father-in-law, to public shame. In Framley Parsonage (1861), Parson Mark Roberts is too eager for the society of the liberal Duke of Omnium to resist a loan request from the Duke’s man in Parliament, a notorious debtor. The young Frank Gresham, whose 21st birthday celebration opens Doctor Thorne (1858), succumbs to his parents’ wish that he “marry money,” at least to the extent of making a foolish, unsuccessful proposal to the heiress of the “Oil of Lebanon” fortune.
Like Eames, all of these men are weak. And overcoming that weakness is his, and their, biggest task. As for Johnny himself, he enters The Small House at Allington as an awkward “hobbledehoy” in his early twenties. For this late novel, Trollope chooses a protagonist with no land, no family blood, and a meager profession as a “mere clerk” in London. Johnny has ever been in love with his childhood friend, Lily Dale, who lives on the edge of genteel poverty with her mother and older sister at “the small house” at Allington. Lily cannot take seriously the love of a “hobbledehoy”; she gets swept off her feet by the visiting Adolphus Crosbie, a London clerk like Johnny, but a more successful and stylish one.
Just weeks after their engagement, and after learning that Lily’s uncle (the Squire Dale) won’t settle any money on his poor niece, Crosbie, mixing with high society in the capital, contracts a second engagement. He becomes affianced to the daughter of the Earl de Courcy, whose family gloms on to him as an eligible bachelor with impressive professional prospects. A tuft-hunter, he at least experiences some qualms before jilting the young lady from the humbler family—and many regrets thereafter.
Trollope has complicated matters by having Johnny—once he’s far from Barsetshire and Lily Dale—fall for the daughter of his London landlady. Both men are drifting with the tide, with Johnny emerging as only slightly less of a cad when someone else takes up with the landlady’s daughter, releasing him from his vow. Crosbie’s inconstancy, by contrast, leaves Lily shamed while he marries into the nobility.
Squire Dale laments that dueling has gone out and that few people outside Barsetshire will ever know of the affair. But the wish of Lily’s mother, that Crosbie be beaten, comes true: Johnny encounters Crosbie at London’s Paddington Station and gives him a sizeable black eye. With that, the very next mention of Eames in the novel has him as “John,” and he is said to be “emerging from his hobbledehoyhood and entering upon his young manhood.”
In Doctor Thorne, the young Frank Gresham similarly defends the honor of his sister when he takes a whip to the coward who jilts her. Physical courage and violence count for something in Trollope’s world. But they are nevertheless quite rare; they do not make the men. The courage that John ultimately learns is that of being true to his word, after his mistreatment of the landlady’s daughter. The blows he rains on Crosbie are just reparations for the injuries caused by that man’s base behavior.
Readers expecting an immediate romantic reward to come to feisty John Eames are disappointed. His sorting out of Crosbie is never even made known to his beloved Lily. She has, in any event, vowed never to love again after her great disappointment. John’s silence makes him an even better man in my judgment, for he is cured of self-pity and decides to live realistically on a clerk’s income. More importantly, the judgment of the landlady’s daughter, who tells him that she “did think that you was a gentleman that would not go back from your word,” sinks in. He acknowledges his failure, and readers of the next novel, The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), will see a John Eames who has returned home and stands ready to defend the honor of a good man—Mr. Crawley, an impoverished curate who is falsely accused of stealing £20.
Keeping one’s word is the defining characteristic of the gentleman, from Chaucer’s Wyf of Bath’s Tale onward. The old hag in that tale berates a knight for breaking his word, which he feels as deeply as John Eames feels the judgment that is passed on him. Chaucer’s word for keeping one’s pledge is a rich one—“trouthe”—and it suggests truth, loyalty, faithfulness, and integrity. Above all, “keeping trouthe” requires courage, which provides the strength that undergirds the other virtues. In Chaucer, Trollope, Jane Austen, and many other English writers, this is the strength that a boy needs to become a man. To fail to develop it is boyish; to violate it is shameful. Plenty of Trollope’s other men have become strong in other ways, but theirs is the strength of vice. They are mercenary or moneygrubbing, heartless or hypocritical.
Plenty, but not all. The two sterling exceptions are Dr. Thorne and Mr. Harding.
Moral Courage in Middle Age
Critics have made a good case that Septimus Harding is the moral center of the six-volume Barchester series. Its first installment, The Warden (1855), is about him. He is a clergyman and also the warden of Hiram’s Hospital, a home for poor old men. An investigation by the London Jupiter (a fictional version of the Times) forces Mr. Harding to admit the unseemliness of accepting the overly generous stipend allotted, from an ancient endowment, to the person in charge of this almshouse. To preserve his integrity he decides, over the strong objections of his son-in-law and his legal counsel, to resign. He is the most mild-mannered of souls, yet his steadfastness in taking this action is unshakeable. How does Trollope describe this determination? Mr. Harding “manfully combated against great odds” to outface his supposed allies.
After relinquishing the office of warden, Mr. Harding still has the respect of his fellows, and his position at the heart of the Barchester establishment. He remains precentor of the cathedral—the cleric in charge of the cathedral’s music—and is related through marriage to the bishop. If today you visit the cathedral at Salisbury (my favorite candidate for the real-life version of Barchester and its cathedral) you can still meet a bishop and a precentor. And you should definitely take the short walk to St. Nicholas Hospital, which was probably Trollope’s model for that of old John Hiram. Salisbury ever breathes Barchesterian serenity, for all the poison that has lately spilled there from Russian spies. Mr. Harding has one great episode of stress, strain, and moral courage, but his life is otherwise passed in the comfort of a cathedral close.
The eponymous character at the center of Doctor Thorne comes from outside the establishment. He is just outside it, to be sure, but out far enough to have his integrity tested not just once, like Mr. Harding, but in every season of life. He is the most admirable man in all six books.
Dr. Thomas Thorne, about age 55 when that novel begins, takes pride in having blood in his veins as ancient as that of the finest gentleman in Barsetshire. Though he was a landless shoot from a younger branch, “he had a pride in being a poor man of a high family.” Thorne was the best doctor in Barsetshire, but medicine was not then considered a particularly honorable profession. Moreover, Thorne has embraced new, de trop business practices, shocking his contemporaries by publishing his fees and acting as his own apothecary. He is pugnacious, but not a bully. He thinks himself equal “as a man” to the landed Squire Gresham or the noble Earl de Courcy. And yet, for all his willingness to stand up to rank, politically speaking, “he was a thorough Conservative” and “would have expended his means, his blood, and spirit” in fighting for the House of Lords.
Dr. Thorne has “a man’s heart, a man’s courage, and a man’s humanity.” Earlier in life, when his worthless brother impregnated a Barsetshire girl and was in turn killed by her brother, Thorne offered to care for his infant niece, so the girl could move to America with a new husband. “I will be father to her and mother to her,” says Thorne to the grieving mother. “Of what bread I eat, she shall eat.”
Manhood Defined Versus Manhood Lived
I recently listened to a program on National Public Radio that made much of a supposed distinction between masculinity, which is bad, and “being a man,” which is good, as long as you define it however you like. Got that? Likewise a popular documentary on masculinity, The Mask You Live In (2015), recommends a therapy in which men put traditional stereotypes inside a “man box,” then step outside. This step will free them, the film preaches, for we can choose to be whatever we want if only we’ll cast off the roles imposed by society. Both examples are versions of what Charles Taylor criticizes as “subtraction stories,” in which the secular, self-created individual supposedly emerges after subtracting whatever is felt to have held one back: religious belief, kinship, family, and past narratives. Among the young men I teach, it’s not working very well. For as Harvey Mansfield reminds us in Manliness (2006), “if you have an identity you can’t do everything; if you can do everything you don’t have an identity.”
It could be that I have reignited Plato’s “old war between philosophy and poetry” in this essay, for I haven’t advanced definitions or anticipated counterarguments. Nevertheless, I gladly put Trollope forward as a witness for the wisdom of fiction. Doctor Thorne doesn’t enter into definitions of manliness, masculinity, or male identity for its readers. Instead, Dr. Thorne enacts what it means to be a man. He is outwardly brusque in manner, but his patients come to appreciate his “loving, trusting heart,” his honesty, and his “manly, and almost womanly tenderness.” In the flow of the narrative, generosity and tenderness develop from his character naturally. He freely tells the young Frank Gresham that he loves him, and he is no stranger to tears.
There is no “box” that Dr. Thorne needs to escape in order to be “father and mother” to his niece. There is no ideology he needs to obey in order to express empathy. He has a young girl to care for, a career to establish, and friends to love. He draws on his entire character—including his manhood—to rise to whatever occasion greets him. Thomas Thorne goes from strength to strength, day by day and year by year as he keeps his promise to his niece.
It’s worth noting that the Wyf of Bath asked, “What do women want?” well before Erica Jong and Sigmund Freud. In Chaucer’s time, and ours, women want a man who is true to his word—a man who “keeps trouthe.” Any boy who tries to do that is sure to be tested, for the immediate rewards of compromise and weakness are often alluring. Courage, integrity, and faith, by contrast, are only developed over the course of a life—or a very long, very good novel. The reward for developing them in Trollope is simple: It is manhood.
 The linkage between homophobia and male bonding institutions is explicit in Michael Kimmel’s influential book, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (Free Press, 1996 ), p. 7.
 Maggie Jones, “What Teenagers are Learning from Online Porn,” New York Times Magazine, February 11, 2018.
 Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington, edited and with an introduction by Dinah Birch (Oxford University Press, 2015), Kindle location 253.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 22, 26-29.
 Harvey C. Mansfield, Manliness (Yale University Press, 2006), p. 160.